Monstrous fun of Sheila’s Norfolk tales
Hidden in the depths of the Norfolk Broads is a magical place that encourages children to read and write. Emma Harrowing took the boat from Bewilderboat Junction to Bewilderwood to listen to head storyteller Sheila Hunter's tale.
Taking the wooden boat from Bewilderboat Junction past the Dismal Dyke towards the Scary Lake, our adventure into the magical world of Boggles, Twiggles and Thorny Crocklebogs had begun.
Despite being only a short boat ride into the woods, we – me and my five-year-old niece and two-year-old nephew – were transported into the magical land of Bewilderwood with tales of the characters that live in the marshes and woods. By the time we had zipped and slid our way around Bewilderville, Muddlemaze and Toddlewood Valley we were all full of stories about our adventures in the woods, how we longed to play with Swampy and his friends, how we had fallen in love with Mildred the Crocklebog, how we had to keep an eye out for the scary Bewilderbats and how we feasted on sweetsludge pie – well, actually locally-produced sausages.
It's these tales that my niece and nephew chatted about all the way home with such enthusiasm that it is easy to see why this woodland adventure park in the Norfolk Broads just outside Wroxham doesn't just provide a fun day out but also encourages children to read, write and interact by evoking their imaginations.
Head storyteller Sheila Hunter says: 'Bewilderwood is a place where families can play and learn together. It's a tool that can be used to encourage and improve education, especially literacy.
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'The Bewilderwood characters are brought to life on the Storytelling Stage where we hold daily plays telling the stories about Bewilderwood. The performances are interactive so we have children on the stage acting out the characters in the story and children in the mosh pit dressed up who will clap and boo in all the right places. Therefore it is the audience that makes each performance a success.'
Although audience participation is high, each performance is expertly read and, in some cases, controlled by a five-strong storytelling team headed by 38-year-old Sheila who has been telling stories about the magical Bewilderwood characters since the park opened more than four years ago.
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'It's fun and I've never tired of telling stories about the characters that live here,' says Sheila. 'Acting out scenes with the children that visit is unpredictable as we never know if they will get into the swing of the story by booing the Thornyclod spiders, wearing the costumes, or joining in with all the actions.'
Since studying cultural studies and performing arts at college, Sheila has always been creative. She made her own jewellery and makes felt flowers in her spare time and she has taken part in school and community art projects where she painted wall murals.
'When I saw the advertisement for job opportunities at Bewilderwood I knew that I had to apply. I had watched the adventure park being built and when I heard about the idea behind the magical land I had to be a part of it.'
Throughout the summer the storytellers told the third story in the Bewilerwood trilogy a Bewildermuddle which sees the gang hunt for the Hippopotamuddle in a bid to help Mildred get better.
'Most of the time the stories are brought to life by the children themselves who will help the gang row the boat to find the Hippopotamuddle and help them make stinky pongiporridge. Occasionally we do get a child who volunteers to take part in the play but then refuses to wear the costume or doesn't want to help row the boat to shore,' says Sheila laughing. 'This is all part of the fun of storytelling and it makes each performance different.'
The storytellers also bring the Bewilderwood magic to schools as the park has close links with local schools and educational establishments to help encourage literacy.
'We do various activities in schools to encourage children to read and write. Again we make the sessions as interactive as possible and the children can create things for the story, act out parts and interact with the characters.'
Sheila's passion and enthusiasm for her job shines through. As she describes her work, the fictional places in Bewilderwood sound like the places to be seen and talking about spending the day den-building near Toddlewood Valley becomes as real as telling someone you had spent your day crabbing at Cromer. Her favourite character is Mildred the Crocklebog who has also proved a hit with the children who queue to see her after every performance, and she enthuses about working with both the staff and the characters that live in Bewilderwood.
Sheila says: 'For those that do not know what I do for a living, hearing me talking about having tea in the Cosy Cabin or how Swampy was not the only person scared when travelling over Scary Lake can sound like I'm ever so slightly losing the plot!
'I love how Bewilderwood lets you use your imagination and brings the stories in the books to life through an experience that hopefully encourages children and even adults to read, write and build the confidence to interact with other people.'
Bewilderwood is hosting Snagglefang's Spooky Spectacular from Monday until Sunday, October 30 where you can make your own masks and lanterns and join in the lantern parade. For more information visit www.bewilderwood.co.uk